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Sex and the Heavenly City

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 25 Jun 2020

Ros Clarke's article from the Autumn 2019 edition of Crossway looks at the ultimate, eternal reality of sex.

“Bible-believing Christians hate gay people, we repress our sexuality, we are ashamed of our own bodies, we don’t care about people being lonely, frustrated, unloved or abused, we are more concerned with arbitrary rules than people’s happiness.”

That is what the world thinks of us. The world looks at the church and sees discrimination and exclusion, when we know that the gospel message is one of inclusivity and diversity, of love that transcends boundaries.

The world looks at the church and sees prudes and killjoys, when we know that Christ came in order that we might have life, and have it to the full.

The world looks at the church and sees abusers and hypocrites, when we know that in reality our pews are simply filled with forgiven sinners, as weak and flawed and wicked as anyone else, but welcomed, forgiven, healed and redeemed in Christ.

The world is hearing a false story but they are believing it. People in our churches are hearing that false story too and more and more of them are believing it. Simply telling them what the Bible says about who is allowed to have sex and when and with whom, treating the Bible merely as a rulebook to be obeyed, isn’t enough. What we need is not a rulebook, but a love letter from our bridegroom, wooing us tenderly, seducing us into faithfulness to him.

We all need this better story. Whether you’re married or single, whether you have a fabulously satisfying sex life, or one that is painful and frustrating, whether you’re widowed or divorced, whether you’ve been abused or assaulted, whether you’re a virgin or whether you’ve had a whole string of shameful sexual experiences, whether you’re attracted to people of the same sex or the opposite sex, to both sexes or neither. Whatever your experience of sex and sexuality, you are part of this bigger story, this great romance in which God sweeps his people off their feet and into his arms.

It’s in this bigger, better love story that we’ll all be able to enjoy our sexuality properly and use it appropriately, no matter what circumstances God has put us in.

So what is the better love story? What is the better story about sex that Christians should be telling?

God’s own love story
This is God’s own love story. It is the story of God’s love for his people, his betrothal and marriage to them, it’s the story of his bride’s unfaithfulness, adultery and prostitution, it’s the story of her being made new again and betrothed again, it’s the story of the bridegroom sacrificing his own life for her, the bridegroom who is one day returning, once and for all, for the celebration and consummation of their marriage.

Our better story is about true love, lasting marriage, real sex and fierce desire.

The Bible is a book about desire and a book that is intended to make us feel desire. It is meant to make us long for more, to feel like a fiancee as she waits impatiently for the consummation of her marriage.

Sometimes we manage to make the marriage between God and his people sound as though it’s no more than a business transaction or a state treaty. Marriage is a covenant, yes, but it’s not impersonal. It’s solemn and it’s legal, but it’s also relational. It’s romantic.

“Therefore I am now going to allure her,” God says of his people Israel in Hosea 2:14, “I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”  Or in Isaiah 62:5, he tells her, “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” There’s nothing business-like about this relationship. There is tenderness and seduction, delight and joy. There is romance.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about God’s marriage to his people in romantic language because the Bible isn’t afraid to use romantic language for it. We do need to be clear, of course, that this is a corporate relationship. God’s bride is not me, but us, the whole church together. But it is nevertheless a romance, with all the feelings that entails, of tenderness, of care, of delight, of love. And of course, feelings of sexual attraction.

If sometimes Christians are cautious of speaking about God’s marriage to his people in romantic terms, I think frankly we’re terrified to talk about it in sexual terms, even erotic terms. And yet the Bible is not.

In Ezekiel 16:6-8, God reminds Jerusalem of his history with her in very striking terms:

Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked. ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.

God waits until Israel has entered puberty and her breasts are grown, until she is old enough for love and then he goes to bed with her. That is what it means when he spreads his garment over her. This is a sexual relationship, which is confirmed with an oath and a covenant. This is a marriage.

In the Old Testament, the sexual nature of God’s relationship with Israel is most often made clear when Israel is unfaithful. She is described as an adulteress and a prostitute. But it is implicit in their own marriage relationship as well, as we see in Hosea 3. Hosea is told to go and love his wife again, ‘as the Lord loves the Israelites.’ (Hosea 3:1) And we’re told what that will look like in v3: “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

Loving a wife the way that the Lord loves the Israelites means having an exclusive, faithful, sexual relationship. That’s what we see in the Song of Songs: an exclusive, faithful sexual relationship between a man who represents the Messiah, and a woman who is his bride, Israel. And theirs is no cold-blooded marriage of convenience. It’s a passionate romance that is deeply intimate and fiercely jealous. They express it through the formula of mutual possession: I am my beloved’s and he is mine (2:16 and 6:3), and in the altered version of it: I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).

This is a romance that begins with God waiting for his bride to reach the age of sexual maturity so he can take her to his bed. It’s a romance that begins again after her unfaithfulness, with the re-virgination of faithless Israel as God redeems and restores her and makes her fit to be his bride again.

God wants us to know just how passionate and tender, how intimate and jealous his love for us is. The analogy he uses to help us understand is the passionate, tender, intimate, jealous love of a sexual relationship, of a marriage.

Longing for more
But no analogy is perfect, and this one certainly isn’t. Because marriage never delivers fully on the promise it offers. There are two sinners in every marriage, spoiling things for themselves and each other. More than that, sex itself never delivers on the promise it offers. Sex is fleeting. It always ends, and of course, the end is sort of the point of sex. It’s almost as if sex is not designed to provide true satisfaction, after all, because it always leaves people wanting more.

Sex is supposed to make us want more. It’s supposed to make us look forward, to make us long for a consummation that will last. Sex is meant to make us look forward to the new creation when, united with Christ by faith, we are drawn into that eternal, mutual, loving, indwelling relationship with God himself, when we will finally get to experience the reality of which human sex is only the faint shadow.

Above all, then, this is what sex is really for. All our sexual experiences are designed to shape us into that bride who sits and gazes out over the mountains, longing for the first glimpse of her bridegroom, the betrothed woman who cannot wait for her wedding day, the one who desires above all things the consummation of her marriage.

Whatever is good about your sex life now, it is transient. The pleasure of an orgasm does not last. At best, which is to say, in the context of a loving, heterosexual marriage which lasts a lifetime, a happy and healthy sex life can only help to build that relationship and make it flourish for a little while. All marriages end. And so whatever joy and delight you find in sex now should only make you long for a more lasting satisfaction.

Whatever is not good about your sex life now, it is transient. Whatever pain and frustration you find in sex now, should only make you long for something better. Whether you are single and sad, whether you are same-sex attracted and frustrated or angry, whether you are a survivor of sexual abuse and terrified, whether you suffer from sexual dysfunction and are ashamed. Whether you know you have made mistakes in the past or are still caught up in sexual sin in the present. Whatever it is about this broken, fallen world that stops you from experiencing sexual fulfilment now – should make you long for the day when you will be truly satisfied, truly happy, truly intimate, truly free from fear.

On that day, there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage, as Jesus explained to the Sadducees (Luke 20:35). But there will be a marriage! There will be the ultimate, final marriage of which our human marriages are weak shadows and signs. And in that ultimate, eternal marriage, there will be the ultimate, eternal experience of everything that sex was designed to be.

We may not be having sex with our spouses in the new creation, but we won’t be wishing for it. No one will be wistfully remembering the messy, momentary sexual encounters of this world, any more than we will be looking back wishing for the animal sacrifices or the passing glories of Solomon’s temple. Instead we will have Christ, the lamb who was slain, Christ our temple and our great high priest, and Christ, our heavenly bridegroom.

We won’t be having sex with each other, but we will be closer than that, because we will all be perfectly united in Christ. We won’t be having physical sexual intercourse, but we will be having true and better intercourse with one another and with God himself. We will be eternally enjoying that passionate, tender, intimate, loving indwelling which Christ calls us into by faith.

So there’s our better story. There’s God’s better story, in which sex is of eternal, cosmic significance. And in which sex is merely a weak and temporary shadow of the reality that is to come.

The end of the story is coming and it will be a fitting climax to all God’s work of creation and revelation, of redemption and restoration. It will be eternal and glorious, intimate and joyful. It will be the greatest sex you’ve ever had.

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society and Course Leader of the Priscilla Programme

Photo by Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

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